Towards the Light
AC Grayling Towards the Light: The Struggle for Liberty and Rights that Made the Modern West (Bloomsbury, 2007). ISBN 9780 747 583868
Reviewed by John Carr.
(Reviewed August 2009)
The philosopher AC Grayling is something of a media celebrity in England, for both his championing of human rights causes and his regular columns in newspapers and magazines that give down-to-earth wisdom on everyday topics. Under titles such as The Meaning of Things and The Form of Things, his collected articles are now available in Australia in paperback form. The historical work reviewed here has more in common with his biographies of philosophers, such as Descartes and Hazlitt, but his interest in alleviating human suffering is still very much in evidence.
As a starting point for his account of the battles fought over the past 500 years in Europe and America for what we now call ‘human rights’, Grayling invites readers to compare the degree of freedom that they enjoy with that experienced by their ancestors of 500 years ago. Most people in the Western liberal democracies in the 21st Century, he argues, enjoy liberty and freedoms that only a privileged few – the aristocracy and the episcopate – had in the 16th Century.
Lest readers become too smug in their good fortune, Grayling has a second thesis, the sting in the tail: that the citizens of these democracies are now allowing some of these hard-won rights to be traded off to opportunistic politicians with the promise of greater security against crime and terrorism.
The Main Events in the Struggle
Grayling begins his story around the year 1500; he briefly refers to the 12th Century Renaissance but not to earlier forerunners of liberty, such as Ancient Greek ‘democracy’, Anglo-Saxon folkmoot or Magna Carta. Of necessity, he refers to the barbaric Medieval and Spanish Inquisitions in some detail, since these were the very antithesis of human rights.
In the early centuries, the struggle was against the entrenched power of absolutist monarchs, the aristocracy and the Church. In more recent times it was (and in many places remains) a struggle against large landholders, industrialists, conservative governments and, yes, still the Church. Many of the hard-won advances were weakened or destroyed not only by the counter-attacks, often violent, of the powerful, but also by the disunity and overzealousness of the strugglers themselves.
Protestant Reformation – 16thC In order to win the freedom to think and believe what one wanted, the first struggle was against the monolithic, absolutist Roman Church. While the focus of conflict was theological, nationalistic factors sometimes came into play. The resultant Wars of Religion and the Catholic Counter Reformation were catastrophic. Worse, the Lutheran and Calvinist Churches often became as absolutist as the Romans, but at least they were not monolithic. The first, essential, battle had been won. Throughout Europe, there now existed a corps of free-thinkers.
Scientific Revolution – 16, 17thC As the well-known story of Galileo attests, in Rome, the Inquisition was re-established. But elsewhere in Europe, advances in physics and astronomy led to a great flowering in science, technology and industry, which undermined literal readings of scripture and the authority of the Church. The advantage gained by the Protestant countries has never been ceded.
English Revolutions – 17th C The revolutions leading to the execution of Charles I and the banishment of James II stemmed from both secondwave opposition to Catholicism and Parliamentary opposition to the absolutist Stuart monarchs. Though the Puritan ‘Commonwealth’ was a typical backward step on the journey to liberty, the ‘Glorious Revolution’ (1688) and the Bill of Rights (1689) established the supremacy of the English Parliament, a model for later constitutional monarchies and republics.
Enlightenment – 18th C Building on the freedoms already won or, at least, conceivable, an army of scientists and philosophers asserted the primacy of reason and intellect and the rights of the individual. The great groundswell of support for the freedoms identified was the ideological basis of the American and French Revolutions.
American revolution – 18thC Opposition to foreign domination led, not only to the War of Independence, but to the development of an Enlightenment-inspired Declaration of Independence (1776) and Bill of Rights (1791). These have served as models for many newly independent countries, even if full liberal democracy has rarely been achieved. Even in the USA itself, slavery continued until the 1860s and apartheid until the 1960s.
French Revolution – 18th C This titanic revolution, arising most immediately from opposition to absolutist Bourbon monarchs, led to enormous euphoria amongst intellectuals throughout the West. The libertarian ideals of the Revolution were best summed up in the Declaration of Rights of Man (1789). However, the rapid descent into the chaos and barbarity of the Reign of Terror resulted in regression both in France and other countries; the fear of the mob led to establishments everywhere cracking down on any sign of dissent.
Liberty Century – 19thC As the conservative reaction to the French Revolution subsided, the widespread groundswell for liberty in Britain and a few other nations reasserted itself. Despite the continued opposition of the establishment, major victories were won: the abolition of slavery, workers rights, wider male suffrage and the beginnings of women’s rights. Progress would have seemed frustratingly slow to activists of the day; universal adult suffrage was achieved in UK only in 1928. The ‘revolutions’ of 1848 were comparatively mild and led to few long-term regressions. Grayling singles out the Chartists Petition (1838) to exemplify the aspirations of the time.
United Nations – 20thC The massive suffering of the two World Wars led to a wide consensus on the need for peace and prevention of crimes against humanity. Some 200 countries have eagerly joined the United Nations, but there continues to be some reluctance on the part of many members to affirm the Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and its subsequent Conventions. There has been growing opposition to the ideals and practices of the UN and the liberal democracies by Muslim and Third World nations, which see many of their values as atheistic and immoral.
Advances and retreats
All of the above ‘advances’ were complex series of events played out over decades against the fierce opposition of the powerful. Successes were frequently followed by regression, so that the passing of a liberating law, constitution or bill of rights was often merely an early stage in a very long struggle. Nevertheless, the effect of these was sometimes cumulative, with each advance providing a basis for later ones. The frightened conservatives were right about one thing: Each of the advances was truly ‘a thin end of the wedge’; give the people a little freedom and they’ll want more.
Grayling calls the five italicised documents mentioned above ‘Landmarks’, hailing them as outstanding statements on liberty of the individual and human rights. He acknowledges that such ‘mandated’ codes of rights can have deleterious effects, despite their good intentions. He also suggests that statements of positive rights (such as freedom of movement or to hold opinions) are sometimes less effective and more open to abuse than negative freedoms (such as freedom from arbitrary detention or torture).
Heroes, seriously flawed heroes and villains
The story of the journey ‘towards the light’ has a large cast of people who struggled for or against the extension of human rights. Sadly, history reveals that some of the most revered leaders, like Luther, Calvin, Cromwell and the French revolutionaries, were as biased and ruthless as the despots they fought, whereas some of the most courageous and principled champions of liberty, such as Sebastian Castellio, John Locke, Robert Owen and Anthony Benezet, are now unknown to all but historians and philosophers.
The recent regressions in the UK and the USA are not the first. Authorities have always used real or imagined threats to their citizens, such as war, crime and natural disaster, as excuses for the imposition of draconian laws and actions. Critics argue that the real motive for such action is the eternal imperative of the powerful to stay in power. Since ‘9/11’, the governments of liberal democracies have clawed back some of the most basic freedoms won over the centuries, ostensibly in the interest of public security. While human rights and libertarian groups, including Christian ones, have opposed and tried to publicise this, the vast majority of people are either unaware or supportive of such ‘strong’ measures. In implementing repressive measures, governments are now greatly assisted by the proliferation of advanced technology (eg satellites, the internet, mobile phones, CCTV) and the collaboration of the media (through self-censorship, embedding and dumbing-down).
Though Grayling includes Australia and New Zealand among the small number of true liberal democracies, he has no space for specific references to Australia’s role in the story, with regard to either past progress or present dangers. In the current world climate, it is incumbent on all Australians to be alert to our government’s stance on human rights. There have been several recent examples of regressive human rights legislation and actions instituted here by both Coalition and Labor Governments and we have every right to be alarmed. What current freedoms would you be prepared to forego if our government promises you even greater security against crime or terrorism?